JOHANNESBURG, July 11, 2010 - Justice left it very, very late but finally had the overdue and utterly deserved last word as Spain added the World Cup – remarkably, their first - to the European title.
Not until four minutes from the end of extra time and the fearful threat of a penalty shootout did Andres Iniesta strike down a Dutch team who, with their clumping, kicking and clogging did not even deserve to be in the 2010 final.
Bert Van Marwijk’s team turned football tradition on its head as the inheritors of the tradition of pure, free-flowing total football showed merely envious nastiness.
Holland might claim their strategy as justified since they fashioned the two clearest, easiest chances of normal time in the all-European 2010 showdown. They could have been painting Johannesburg orange through the night. Instead Arjen
Robben, to Spain’s relief, was foiled on both occasions deep in the second half Spain’s keeper-captain Iker Casillas.
For those stops Casillas deserves the world game’s thanks for averting a totally wrong-headed outcome from concluding the most controversial staging of the World Cup since Argentina – for totally different reasons - in 1978.
South Africa, supported by FIFA president Sepp Blatter, had campaigned initially to win host rights in 2006 but was outmanoeuvred politically by Germany. FIFA, at Blatter’s behest, then introduced a system of rotation which designated 2010 for Africa and made it inevitable that South Africa would win at second attempt.
Nelson Mandela, against doctors’ advice, made the journey to Zurich to lay his hands on the World Cup ahead of its journey, for real, in June and July 2010. He was back, having missed the Opening Match through family bereavement, to greet the Soccer City crowd during the closing ceremonials before kick-off.
The ceremony also featured Shakira projecting the official song which had thumped around South Africa for a month. It will take far, far longer before any conclusion can safely be reached about the cultural, political and social benefits of this
At least the spectre of negativity proclaimed abroad about South Africa’s hostingcapacit y had been exorcised and the 3m-plus ticket sales topped that in Germany in 2006 despite a slow initial local take-up. Just a pity the two teams in the Final could not rise to the challenge in similar fashion.
The early exits of France, Italy and England had prompted premature obituaries for European football. Instead the twists and turns of fate turned up not only the eighth all-European final but the certainty of a new (European) name on World Cup itself.
But Spain made desperately hard work of it.
Dutch football, through its coaches and players – Johan Cruyff most notably, in both roles – had played a singular role in the evolution of the Spanish game. Indeed, in a role reversal, Dutch coach Bert Van Marwijk had long proclaimed an admiration for Barcelona and a wish that his team could mimic them.
This was his – and their – moment of truth and they betrayed their own heritage.
Spain played all of the football that there was and exerted much of the pressure. But they had only two clear chances in normal time, both through attacking fullback Sergio Ramos. Early in the first half he was denied by a fine save from Maarten Stekelenburg; midway through the second he misdirected a “free” header horribly high over the bar.
Holland, battling aggressively to break up Spain’s rhythm, had a sequential stream of players booked by English referee Howard Webb. In the Premier League he would have produced a red card before the 90 minutes were up. If he had done so – particularly to Mark Van Bommel for one awful tackle from behind – he might have done Spain, himself, the World Cup Final and football in general a favour.
Finally, as justice would have it again, it was the policeman’s unarguable expulsion of John Heitinga which came just in time to thin out the Dutch defence and save us all from shootout hell.
Thus justice was done – thanks, in part, to a British Bobby.